Meyerhoff Center hosts lecture on struggles of Jewish identity at University of Michigan

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By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh

A professor spoke Wednesday afternoon to group of around 20 University of Maryland faculty about his recent book, which studies Jewish identity specifically at the University of Michigan, one of the first universities to establish a Hillel community.

The author, Andrei S. Markovits, is “an extraordinary interdisciplinary,” said Charles Manekin, a philosophy professor and director of the Meyerhoff Center.

Markovits is a professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, and has published many articles and books ranging on topics from European labor, social democracy and new social movements; to sports in Europe and the United States. He also studies German-Jewish relations and anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in Europe.

Andrei S. Markovits talks about his book, "Hillel at Michigan 1926/7-1945: Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era," to a group of UMD faculty Wednesday. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Andrei S. Markovits talks about his book, “Hillel at Michigan 1926/7-1945: Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era,” to a group of UMD faculty Wednesday. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

In his book, “Hillel at Michigan 1926/7-1945: Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era,Markovits provides a look into the developmental stages of a major Jewish studies association on campus at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in the U.S. The Midwest was arguably the most anti-Semitic part of the U.S., Markovits said, especially areas such as Detroit, home to notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford and Father Charles Edward Coughlin.

In the early 1920s, Benjamin Frankel, a rabbinic student, and Abram Sachar, who was involved with B’nai Brith, wanted to create a place on college campuses that melded all major aspects of Jewish life.

They felt the need for Jewish students to engage in some kind of activity that invoked Jewish culture, that also “educate[d] his mind without losing his soul,” said Markovits, so Frankel and Sachar developed the fundamental pillars for their proposed organization.

Every chapter must operate under a director, usually a rabbi, who must play an active role and an important presence in addressing major issues and institutionalizing initiatives. They wanted to create a professional organization, so having a Jewish educational professional chair would help establish a legitimate status.

The founders also believed the new organization should have a broad ecumenical mission to serve all Jewish students, regardless of their background. Their aim was to create a “catch-all party,” said Markovits, whose task is never to maximize, but rather to satisfy those involved.

Frankel and Sachar were concerned that Jewish values “remained frozen on the Sunday-school level,” said Markovits, so they wanted to develop a college approach to Jewish life.

“The Hillel program is designed to fill vacuum created when the immature childhood notions concerning religion and Judaism, which most students bring along when they enter college, are shattered by the intellectual challenge of university,” Markovits quoted from a review of his book.  

The organization’s purpose was not only for imparting information and knowledge, but to enhance a student’s participation and involvement in Jewish affairs in the community.

Lastly, Frankel and Sachar wanted everything to be student-run, to give them the opportunity to share responsibility of operations such as staffing committees, writing publications and deciding on events.

Frankel decided to give the program the name ‘Hillel,’ which means “symbol of the quest for higher learning,” said Markovits. 

Andrei S. Markovits  speaks to UMD faculty about struggles of Jewish identity March 29. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Andrei S. Markovits speaks to UMD faculty about struggles of Jewish identity March 29. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

Marsha Rozenblit, a professor of modern Jewish history at this university, said she was “struck with the intellectualism” the students exhibited.

In his research, Markovits found that students continually reordered records of classical music and copies of philosophical books. “There was immense intellectual input,” Markovits said, because “it was the culturally ‘cool’ distinction to know.”

Markovits noted that “Hillel is a Midwestern creation.” The first Hillel was established at the University of Illinois in 1923, followed by the University of Wisconsin in 1924, Ohio State University in 1925, and then the University of Michigan in 1926. Today, there are over 550 colleges and universities connected with Hillel across North America and throughout the world, according to Hillel International.

According to Markovits’ research, Michigan Hillel had very little membership in its developmental years, despite the university having a Jewish student population of 4.8 percent. In 1945, Michigan Hillel became the largest in the country, successfully organizing 90 percent of the Jewish population, which was about 1,000 students.

The East Coast had pre-existing organizations that did not have a presence in the midwest. Markovits argued that Jews on the East Coast have a different social relationship to their environment, compared to Jews in the Midwest. This is evident in the founding of ten Jewish fraternities and two sororities in predominantly East Coast universities, such as ZBT in 1989.

The University of Maryland Hillel started in the 1940s when Jews were still isolated from major aspects of society, such as greek life on college campuses.

Ari Israel, the executive director of Maryland Hillel, said he thinks “the idea of creating a niche on campus for students to feel comfortable is where it started … Jews were not allowed into the fraternities and sororities … students wanted access, but stayed apart. Now Hillel is trying to integrate them. The similarity is that we want to belong.”

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